Back in the day (whenever that was), lots of people were regularly exposed to some form of orchestral music. The first recording artist ‘stars’ were often operatic singers like Caruso, and the first few decades of music recording were dominated by reproductions of classical music. In part, this was down to the expense involved in owning a gramophone meant the equipment self-selected a wealthy, intellectual elite, but even when the Jazz Age hit in the 1920s, there was still a lot of orchestral music played to all listeners.
The then-new Talking Pictures and burgeoning demands of increasing numbers of radio stations placed high demands on music replay. Producers in both worlds realised that classical music meant gravitas, and the theme songs to many movies in the 1930s and beyond either used existing classical works, or were powerful and meaningful scores from legitimate composers like Korngold. His score for ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’ (1938) was the first time the Academy awarded an Oscar to the composer rather than the studio’s head of music, was considered the one of the API’s best-rated movie soundtracks 67 years later, and is both a fine orchestral piece in its own right, and an almost textbook way of developing excitement through a soundtrack.
The rise of TV in the 1950s saw an even greater uptake of orchestral music, especially in the UK as a result of Lord Reith’s “Inform, Educate, Entertain” moral codex written into the BBC’s charter. Ground-breaking TV shows from those early days often featured suitably ‘highbrow’ music (witness John Hotchkiss’ bold modern score for the 1954 adaptation of Orwell’s ‘1984’ with Peter Cushing in the starring role, or the use of Holst’s ‘Mars, Bringer of War’ for ‘The Quatermass Experiment’ the year before). Meanwhile, on US screens, from 1949-57 (and beyond) Rossini’s William Tell Overture became forever and intrinsically linked with ABC’s ‘The Lone Ranger’ (interestingly, UK television watchers in the late 1950s are more likely to associate it with ITV’s ‘The Adventures of William Tell’, although younger audiences link the music with ‘The Lone Ranger’).
Then, of course, in 1968, came ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, the album of which became one of the most successful classical compilations of the time. By the late 1960s however, increasingly popular music had become prevalent in movie and TV scores, to such an extent that when people saw the 1973 movie ‘Badlands’, they assumed Cark Orff’s ‘Gassenhauer’ was a pop piece written for the soundtrack, rather than a 1920s musical exercise based on the works of the 16th Century lutenist, Hans Neusiedler. A few notable classical exceptions still made their mark on TV and cinema (most notably Coppola’s use of Wagner in Apocalypse Now and Oliver Stone’s use of Barber in Platoon), but classical music was largely erased from the canon. The orchestral score still remains to this day, thanks to score composers like John Williams and Hans Zimmer, and both the BBC and – curiously enough – The Simpsons team still use orchestral music for TV work, but the snappy theme, borrowing heavily from current music, and replacing foghorn like dubstep noises for a score (Inception) have largely relegated orchestral leitmotif.
Classical music can be emotive, uplifting, powerful, and dynamic. It can be expressive and hugely evocative: the UK is currently considering exiting the EU, and the best argument I can think of for staying is the use of Beethoven’s Ode To Joy as the European Anthem – it’s hard to compete with Beethoven writing the soundtrack! And, unfortunately, it can be completely dismissed as ‘pompous Dead White European Male’ music. Even Tárrega’s Gran Vals (once one of the most immediately identifiable themes in classical music) is fading; while 20,000 people per second heard that tune (as the Nokia ringtone) in 2010, Nokia’s gentle fade into telephonic obscurity has taken the Spanish composer’s fame with it.
Which is why, today, a lot of people only hear classical music when on hold for a utilities company. Really… almost a thousand years of musical canon, reduced to the bit between the ‘Your call is important to us’ repeats. Has it really come to that? I think it’s time to fight back.
There has never been more access to all kinds of music today, and it’s time for classical to regain its place once more. Listen to a new (to you) piece of music from a new (to you) composer every week. Load up your phone with Beethoven’s Fifth, and play it when someone ‘sodcasts’ rap through their phone (you might want to throw a few ‘air violin’ shapes, too, just to add some humour to the proceedings). Learn to waltz to Strauss. Work out to opera! And the deeper you go, the more you should learn to spread the news about the olds!